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Early Roy Lichtenstein: A fount of insight on postwar America By Murray Whyte Globe Staff,Updated May 7, 2021, 47 minutes ago Roy Lichtenstein's "Washington Crossing the Delaware II," from about 1951.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN/COURTESY OF GABRIEL MILLER WATERVILLE, Maine — In 1940, an Ohio State undergraduate named Roy Lichtenstein — yes, that Roy Lichtenstein — made a loose and gestural ink
The Boston Globe - Early Roy Lichtenstein: A fount of insight on postwar AmericaEarly Roy Lichtenstein: A
fount of insight on
postwar America By Murray Whyte Globe Staff,Updated May 7, 2021, 47 minutes ago
Roy Lichtenstein's "Washington Crossing the Delaware II," from about 1951.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN/COURTESY OF GABRIEL MILLER
WATERVILLE, Maine — In 1940, an Ohio State undergraduate named Roy
Lichtenstein — yes, that Roy Lichtenstein — made a loose and gestural ink
sketch of Paul Bunyan felling a tree with a mighty swing. He passed it off to his
roommate with a wink. Keep it, he said. I’m going to be famous someday.
Someday came, and famous he was, though not for works like that. In 1961,
Lichtenstein made “Look Mickey,” his first-ever appropriation of a four-color
pulp illustration. (He lifted it from the 1960 kids’ book “Donald Duck: Lost
and Found.”) That anchored him as one of the pillars of the thoroughly
American Pop Art movement.
But “Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948-1960,” at the Colby
College Museum of Art, isn’t about any of that. It’s about Lichtenstein before
he became Lichtenstein, and it’s a revelation: A fresh view of an artist who
reached a saturation point so long ago he can feel as familiar and over-worn as
old wallpaper.
“History in the Making” is instead unfamiliar, exhilaratingly so, spanning the
artist’s long teaching stints in Cleveland and upstate New York, up to a breath
before that fateful Mickey steered his course into mass-cultural history. The
show captures a young artist in a postwar moment, unmoved by the sunny
optimism of a burgeoning American dream and driven to peel back its thin
myths. It underpins Lichtenstein’s own myth in the American mind — because
what’s more American than Pop Art, with its slick language of advertising, its
breezy consumer critique? — with a foundation rooted in old-world artistic
traditions. It’s even painterly, for heaven’s sake, the artist’s rough brush
strokes and thick textures pure anathema to the sleek surfaces of the hands-off
works he’s known for. It constantly surprises, and as a result is more than
occasionally thrilling.
All of this puts “History in the Making” right in step with a prevailing ethos of
the times. Don’t we all know by now how history is selective and incomplete,
and how arbitrary notions of “significance” can whittle complicated narratives
down to fine points? I’d say so. It’s both the dilemma and corrective of our
times. (”History in the Making” is very much of our times in another way too.
It’s been hanging at the Colby since February, but due to the pandemic, will
open to the public for only the final days of its run in early June. Day-trippers
will be able to catch it in August at its next stop at the Parrish Art Museum in
Water Mill, N.Y.)
the market, which found his comic book paintings wonderfully saleable. And
so the back story — these paintings, a life before all that — was put in a box, to
keep the air of complication away from the pure pursuit of profit. It made
Lichtenstein a victim of his own success, at least to me. I got what he was
doing, alongside Warhol, in the 1960s — elevating dumb, sophomoric
American consumer trash culture to the status of art by force of gleeful,
sardonic chutzpah. (That’s not all he did. Once he was famous, he was more
than happy to turn his sharp wit on the system that made him, and even on
himself.) And though I got the point of his later work, I never much cared for
it; there’s only so much winkingly self-conscious cynicism you can take.
That’s why “History in the Making” is a revelation. These are bold, expressive
paintings — experimental, gestural, full of color, fracture, and life. They
grapple with the dark fable of American exceptionalism and explode its blithe
exclusions into visceral critique. The show starts gently — a selection of
beguiling figurative pastels made in the late 1940s, evocative of European
surrealists like Joan Miró and, inevitably, the jagged and totemic forms of
Pablo Picasso — but becomes quickly more urgent.
A step around the corner brings you to “The Cowboy (Red),” the Colby’s lone
Lichtenstein from the period, and curator Elizabeth Finch’s touchpoint for the
show. (”History in the Making” is a collaborative affair between Finch and her
counterpart Marshall N. Price at Duke University’s Nasher Museum, where
the show will wind up its run in 2022.) Lichtenstein was fascinated by
uniquely American icons and the legends that spawned them. The cowboy,
that symbol of rough-and-tumble self-reliance on the western frontier, was
just one example. In the piece, Lichtenstein’s view isn’t one of reverence but
befuddlement; the figure is grimly simplistic, a child’s drawing dismembered
and mawkish, like the wings pulled off a fly. It’s as though the artist, in
unpacking American lore, found it too slim and fragile to reassemble.
Roy Lichtenstein's "The Cowboy," from about 1951.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN
That work, from 1951, is a powerful touchpoint for us, too. Lichtenstein made
it in Cleveland while the New York art world was ascending to global
dominance on the backs of Abstract Expressionism, the first full-blown
American art movement to gain international recognition. It quickly became
the proverbial irresistible force: Serious modern painters had followed the
medium to its logical conclusion in abstraction; those who didn’t, in their
view, just weren’t serious. (Picasso, I’m sure, begged to differ.)
That, of course, was never really the case, and great work was being made
across a spectrum of practice while the movement hogged the limelight. But
that simple narrative dominated American art history orthodoxy for decades,
and to a degree, still does. To get a sense of how selective history can be, it’s
instructive to read Lichtenstein’s short bio that accompanies the “Look
Mickey” page on the National Gallery of Art website. Born in New York, he
decamped for art school at Ohio State in 1940 and, after serving three years in
the army during the war, returned in 1946 to finish his MFA. At the time, New
York was on the cusp of becoming New York, postwar angst coalescing with
artists like Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock to spawn a visual language
beyond representation, so they said, of raw emotion.
At the same time, Lichtenstein, the NGA says, spent 13 years working as an art
professor at Ohio State, the State University of New York at Oswego, and at
Rutgers. He had his first exhibition in New York in 1951, and then moved
there (post-Mickey) for good in 1963.
What it neglects to mention at all is what he was doing for those 13 years,
which was painting furiously and with intent, tackling big narratives about
American identity that his suddenly famous New York peers had abruptly
abandoned. That, ultimately, is what “History in the Making” is about.
The postwar years were a time of soul-searching, with residual trauma forcing
hard questions about living in an increasingly fractured world. The Abstract
Expressionist answer was, simply, to abandon that world entirely on a quest
for emotional purity, the world of images not enough to express the tumult
within. For Lichtenstein, that wouldn’t do. Maybe it was being in Cleveland,
away from New York’s careerist pressures and keenly in touch with another
America, where the touchstones of Americana — cowboys and Indians,
go) of the founders — still centered daily life.
Roy Lichtenstein's "The Outlaw," 1956.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN
For Lichtenstein, the formal language of Modernism was a way to dismantle
those notions, to wobble the pillars on which American exceptionalism was
built. Whether that meant the movies or great works from the canon,
Lichtenstein gave them equal weight. He transformed the movie poster for the
1955 Lloyd Bridges cowboy movie “Wichita” into a jagged puzzle of riotous
color and painterly cross-hatching with his 1956 work “The Outlaw.” And
Emanuel Leutze’s absurdly famous, achingly heroic “Washington Crossing the
Delaware,” a textbook painting recognized instantly by every American,
became a simplistic, quasi-cubistic tableaux of reductive blandness.
In works like that, you can see the artist Lichtenstein would become, seeded
here, ever a dubious eye cast on bloated American self-regard. There are
passages of deeper awareness, too, of the destructive path cut by the country’s
creation; Lichtenstein made several paintings of Native Americans in the same
fractured way, all of them more robust, powerful, and complex than what feels
like a sneering pass at Leutze. (“Two Indians,” from 1953, with its elegant,
angular forms on deep blue, will wow you.)
Speaking of complex, two works here feel critically, monumentally totemic.
One, “The Death of the General,” from 1951, is Lichtenstein’s take on
Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe,” from 1770, a dizzying painting
that gathers up European colonialism in North America with a single scene of
carefully choreographed, grandiose chaos. The other is “Emigrant Train,” a
take on William Ranney’s 19th-century painting of the same name glorifying
westward expansion.
Roy Lichtenstein's "Emigrant Train After William Ranney," 1951.ESTATE OF ROY LICHTENSTEIN
In Lichtenstein’s hands, both paintings are dense tangles of figure and object,
claustrophobic and confusing — an acknowledgment, I like to think, of the
artist’s view on cut-and-dried jingoism. His take on the West painting is one of
implosion, the scene draped in the American flag — not present in the original
— in what seems to be a nod to American puffery. But “Emigrant Train” is
more than claustrophobic; where Ranney’s is ennobling, Lichtenstein’s feels
violent. (A preparatory sketch more closely echoes Picasso’s “Guernica,” about
the carnage of the Spanish Civil War.) It says much about the dark heart of
sparkly postwar American optimism, which Lichtenstein saw clearly while so
many chose to look away.
“History in the Making” is important, partly because it deepens — or even
introduces — an understanding of an artist so long at the center of American
culture as to be lost in plain sight. But it also asks an important question: In
streamlining a myth of greatness, can what gets lost be as great, or more? The
answer is a resounding yes; with “History in the Making,” you’re looking at it.
At the Colby College Museum of Art, opening to the public June 4-6. 5600
Mayflower Hill, Waterville, Maine. 207-859-5600, colby.edu/museum
Murray Whyte can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.